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Readers’ Poll: Which Singer Has the Most Unique Voice?

Selections include Tom Waits, Axl Rose, Robert Plant and Geddy Lee

Axl Rose

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American Idol started up again last week, and The Voice is about to begin its second season. Add The X Factor and The Sing Off and it's quite obvious that America loves singing competitions. Not all great singers have conventionally great voices, however. How do you think that Bob Dylan would have fared on one of these shows? How about Geddy Lee? With this in mind, we asked our readers to select their favorite "unique voiced" singers. Click through to see the results. 

By Andy Greene

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10. Geddy Lee

Stephen Malkmus said it best: "What about the voice of Geddy Lee? How did it get so high? I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?" I'll answer the last question first: Yes, Geddy speaks with an ordinary voice. In fact, his speaking voice is, if anything, a little on the deep side. You'd never know from talking to him that he's capable of hitting such amazing high notes. Lee's unconventional voice sometimes makes it tougher for Rush to appeal to a first-time listener, but it's hard to imagine the group with any other singer at the helm. 

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9. Neil Young

It's easy to parody of Neil Young's singing voice. Dana Carvey did it masterfully on Saturday Night Live back in the day ("Dead dog lying in a ditch/ Cigarette smoker's got an itch"), and Coldplay's breakthrough song, "Yellow," was created when Chris Martin was screwing around in the studio doing a Neil Young impression. Back in the Sixties, Young's high voice limited his career. He wrote many of Buffalo Springfield's best songs, but bandmate Richie Furay, who had a more conventional voice, was asked to sing classics like "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing" and "On the Way Home." But Young's early solo hits, like "Cinnamon Girl," proved beyond any reasonable doubt that only the man himself should be singing Neil Young songs. And his voice has held up remarkably well, all these decades later. Listen to "Mr. Soul" from 1967 and this past summer and it sounds like Young has barely aged at all. 

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8. David Bowie

British rock vocalists often open their mouths to sing and suddenly there isn't a hint of an accent. This is not at all the case with David Bowie. Much like Ray Davies of the Kinks, Bowie sounds distinctly British when he sings. He also has an absolutely stunning voice with great range. Just check out this video of "Life on Mars" from Bowie's appearance at Fashion Rocks in 2005. 

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7. Janis Joplin

Without a doubt, Janis Joplin was one of the most powerful and dynamic singers of the 20th century. Her career was incredibly brief, but she made the most of her time. For proof of her Axl-like range, check out this live performance of "Cry Baby" from Festival Express. This was just a few months before she died. It's wild to imagine what she could have accomplished had she lived longer. 

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6. Axl Rose

Slash still remembers the first time he heard Axl Rose's singing voice. It was on a low-fidelity cassette tape that he heard shortly before joining Guns N' Roses. "His squeal was so high-pitched that I thought it might be a technical flaw on the tape," he wrote in his memoir, Slash. "It sounded like the squeak that a cassette makes just before the tape snaps – except it was in key." When Slash realized the superhuman voice was actually legit, he knew he had found his frontman. Axl is an extremely difficult man to work with, but few other men on earth could sing material like "You Could Be Mine." Maybe that's why Velvet Revolver has had such a hard time finding a new singer. 

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5. Eddie Vedder

Eddie Vedder is doubtless one of the most influential singers of the past twenty years. The problem, through no fault of his own, is that most of the bands he influenced are quite terrible. I still remember the first time I heard Creed on the radio. My first thought was, "This is the worst Pearl Jam song I've ever heard." I was greatly relieved when I learned it was some other band. Influence aside, Eddie Vedder's growl works perfectly in Pearl Jam. Just don't try and imitate it. Also, good luck deciphering the lyrics to "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Lukin." They're written in a language only Eddie can decipher. 

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4. Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury brought the vocal power and the drama of opera to Queen. Just listen to "The Show Must Go On" from their 1991 album Innuendo. Freddie knew he didn't have long to live when he cut the song, but he poured all of his heartache and emotion into the track. Twenty years later, it remains gut-wrenching to hear. In his younger years, he could command the attention of 80,000 fans at a soccer stadium with his soaring voice and incredible stage presence. His sense of joy on stage was palpable, and the fact that he died when he was just 45 is one of rock's greatest tragedies. 

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3. Robert Plant

It takes a certain kind of singer to belt out lines such as "The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands/ To fight the horde, singing and crying/ Valhalla, I am coming!" without sounding like a complete idiot. Robert Plant pulled it off effortlessly. His banshee wail was as important to Led Zeppelin as Jimmy Page's guitar playing, though in recent years he has sung in a manner more befitting a man of his age. But in December of 2007, for one glorious night in London, he became the Golden God again, singing classics like "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" in the proper way. And he proved that he still had it. 

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2. Tom Waits

To the untrained ear, a Tom Waits song may sound like a drunken wino jabbering over bizarre outsider music. But anyone who listens for more than a few seconds will quickly hear the genius. Tom Waits has never played by the rules. He made much of his best music in the mid Eighties. It was the height of terrible production standards, yet records like Rain Dogs don't sound the least bit dated. Waits' music has a timeless quality. His voice has gotten even gruffer with age, and it certainly isn't for everybody, but that's part of his appeal. He makes music for an intensely devoted niche audience, never once trying to write a hit. We just wish that he'd tour more often. The world needs more Tom Waits. 

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1. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan completely changed how the music world perceived great singers. Before Dylan hit the scene in the early Sixties, great singers had to have traditional voices. People like Frank Sinatra had hits, and people with voices like Dylan wrote the songs and stayed behind the scenes. Dylan changed all that, ushering in the singer-songwriter era. His voice has gone through countless permutations over the years. He sounds like a weary old man on his 1962 debut LP, and just four years later he sounded like a speed-addled maniac on his 1966 European tour with The Band. He quit smoking and discovered a whole new twangy voice for Nashville Skyline in 1969, and he sang with unbridled intensity on the 1975/'76 Rolling Thunder tour. By the early Nineties Dylan's voice had evolved into the endlessly parodied nasal sound we all associate with Dylan, which has since devolved even further into the guttural bark he has today. Many of these voices sound like they couldn't possibly come from the same man – and yet they're all distinctly Bob Dylan.

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